COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio corn growers who were unable to perform tillage operations last fall due to record-setting soggy conditions may be facing compaction issues, and depending on spring weather, have limited options to prepare for planting.
"Many farmers were unable to get back in their fields after harvest," said Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer. "No doubt there are many fields with ruts and severe compaction issues."
So what can farmers do now to break up that soil and smooth out rough fields? According to Reeder, options are limited.
"Farmers may be facing two types of compacted fields. One type is where there is an isolated compacted area. I suggest they do whatever is necessary to get that area ready for planting and leave the rest of the field alone," said Reeder. "The other type is compaction across the entire field, and whatever is done in terms of tillage operations is applied to 100 percent of the field."
Reeder offers the following options to aid growers in preparing for spring planting:
• Do nothing, especially if it turns out to be an overly wet spring. "You don't want to make a bad situation worse by performing deep tillage on wet soils because it destroys the soil structure," said Reeder. "If a farmer can get a no-till planter or drill across rutted ground reasonably well it may be better to take a slight yield hit this year and then try to correct the deep compaction problem this fall."
• Perform light shallow tillage, but only if the soil is dry. "The idea is to smooth out the soil and create a surface ideal for planting," said Reeder. "Fill in ruts enough to eliminate standing water."
• Use 2006 and 2007 as valuable learning opportunities. "Consider the benefits of continuous no-till, especially with controlled traffic," said Reeder. "Strip-till, either fall or spring, qualifies as a no-till practice and may be best for corn planting." Although only about 20 percent of Ohio's cornfields are in a no-till system, the state leads the Midwest in no-till adoption.
Research has shown that compaction affects crop yields, because compacted soils limit root growth and shut out necessary water and nutrients, leading to subsequent poor growth performance. Years of Ohio State research on Hoytville silty clay loam showed that through compaction, 10 percent to 15 percent of the potential crop yield was being left in the field, adding up to thousands of dollars in lost profits for large growers.
"Whatever farmers can do in their fields is highly dependent on the weather, which is unpredictable," said Reeder. "A wet spring could delay any normal field operations in March and April. A worst-case scenario would be a drought this summer. We are about due for one."
Drought occurrences in the Midwest tend to follow what climatologists refer to as the Benner cycle, averaging every 19 years. The last serious drought occurred in 1988.